The field of intervenors who want to see the evidence used to convict then-UVA senior George Huguely of murdering fellow student Yeardley Love two years ago got a little more crowded last week.
Attorney Mahlon Funk appeared before Judge Edward Hogshire in Charlottesville Circuit Court Thursday on behalf of Love’s mother, Sharon Love, to argue for the court’s release of trial documents, saying they were necessary for the family’s pending wrongful death suit against as-yet unnamed plaintiffs. His was the second hearing on the release of the evidence that afternoon, coming on the heels of another round of arguments for and against making the court documents available to six media companies who filed for access before the trial ended and have been fighting for it since.
“We now don’t have the luxury of time,” said Funk as a shackled Huguely, who awaits an August 30 sentencing date, looked on. “There’s a pesky little thing called the statute of limitations,” which gives the family until May 3 to file their civil suit.
“Unlike the media, my client presents no danger whatsoever of sensationalizing (the evidence) in any way,” said Funk. “They intend to honor the memory of Yeardley.”
Their intent doesn’t really matter, said the other attorneys.
Huguely lawyer Francis McQ. Lawrence said the media and the family have the same standing when it comes to court-ordered access to the evidence, and he reiterated the defense’s argument: Making the evidence available now would infringe on Huguely’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial if his request for a new one—as yet unrequested by his lawyers—is successful.
Robert Yates, the local attorney representing the media companies, agreed that Love’s family has no greater right as litigants than the public does.
“The public’s right, even though nobody up there wants to admit it, is pretty strong,” he said.
Hogshire didn’t rule in favor or against the release of documents and exhibits to Love’s attorney, but according to Funk, Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman can—and will—share the evidence in order to allow the civil case to go forward.
Whether the media will get to see what jurors saw remains up in the air.
Yates offered up two options for granting access to the trial evidence, which he has argued was presented to jurors in such a way that the media and the public couldn’t see it, creating a de facto closed trial.
One plan was to load everything, including photographs, text message transcripts, and the video of Huguely’s interrogation by police, onto a read-only computer terminal in the court clerk’s office and allow the media and the public to access it at will—not for reproduction, but just for viewing.
Acknowledging that such an approach would require the clerk to spend an enormous amount of time chaperoning viewers, Yates offered another suggestion: Put the transcripts and other non-sensitive evidence—no autopsy photos—on a CD and distribute burned copies.
But Huguely’s lawyers said that given the high-profile nature of the trial, there would be no way to keep even the sensitive material from making its way to publication. That, they said, would deny their client the right to an unbiased jury pool if he ended up back in court.
“If we make a mistake with the handling of this evidence, we can’t take it back,” said defense attorney Rhonda Quagliana.
Yates argued that the proverbial cat was already out of the bag.
“The trial already happened,” he said. “Everybody knows a jury found him guilty,” and the evidence is now part of the public record. The law is clear, he said. In order to block access, “you have to articulate a reason, and not a hypothetical reason. The threat of a new trial is a hypothetical reason.”
Hogshire said he was sensitive to the rights of the public to see the trial evidence, but needed more time before he issued a ruling.
“I don’t have a lot of guidance here, and I want to give it some really careful thought,” he said.
Yates maintains precedent is on his clients’ side. He’s been proceeded with patience and accommodated the court, he said, because that’s what you do here.
“I should be up on my First Amendment soapbox saying we should have access to everything,” he said. “But this is Charlottesville.”—Graelyn Brashear